I want a type of desktop PC (and motherboard) that's generally skipped

August 24, 2020

By now, the desktop x86 PC market has segmented itself into a number of categories. There are machines, CPUs, and motherboards that are basic machines with limited features and made to be quite inexpensive, 'business' machines that don't need very much but are more than the very basics, machines for gaming enthusiasts, and HEDT ('High End Desktop') workstations that are aimed at people building high powered machines. Typical examples of what are in these categories are in Anandtech's Best CPUs for Workstations and Best CPUs for Gaming; in Intel motherboard chipsets there is the H series, the B series, and the Z series (sometimes among others). Unfortunately for me, my interests in machines fall into an intermediate category that doesn't generally exist, which I will call a sysadmin workstation.

Every system administrator probably has a somewhat different view of what they want in their desktop. My image of a sysadmin workstation is exemplified by my current home machine; it has a fast (Intel) CPU, it takes a fair amount of RAM that can run at faster than completely stock speeds, it has at least M.2 slots (both of which run at x4) and four SATA ports, and it can drive at least one 4K display through onboard graphics. Unlike a gaming machine, I want to use integrated graphics (they're quieter, less clutter, cheaper, and generally better supported on Linux) instead of a GPU. Unlike a HEDT workstation, I don't want a fire-breathing CPU with its increased cost and cooling requirements (and I also don't want one or more GPUs for GPU computation). And I want more storage (especially M.2) than basic home or business desktops usually provide.

(I might change my views on GPUs if Intel starts making discreet GPUs that are well supported under Linux, drive two 4K displays at 60 Hz or better, and don't require lots of cooling.)

It's possible to put together a sysadmin workstation, of course; I did it for my current home machine and my current (AMD based) work machine, although the latter has to use a GPU. But it generally involves buying more than you need and picking through specifications to narrow in on the bits you care about, and the motherboard support for integrated graphics is often somewhat limited. People who buy motherboards with lots of features and high specification generally use GPUs, so there are a fair number of otherwise suitable motherboards that just don't support onboard graphics. I'm also lucky in that Intel still provides versions of their higher end desktop CPUs with onboard graphics. AMD has historically restricted onboard graphics to lower end models; if you wanted a reasonably powerful Ryzen, you were stuck getting a GPU.

(As far as Intel versus Ryzen goes, I still don't trust AMD. My Intel home machine still has its problem of hanging when the temperature drops too low, but that's a narrow issue that's probably a motherboard fault. The coming of winter with another go-around of this issue is one reason I'm thinking about motherboards and desktops and so on again.)

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The last time I bought a new PC (2012), I ended up buying a "low end gaming" PC. It had an i5-3550 (HD Graphics 2500), mid-range Radeon of some sort, and 8 GB RAM, because this was before the cost of memory became an obvious target for corner-cutting.

The frequency of GPU failures—two Radeon cards died in this PC—makes me interested in having IGP as a backup, but AMD clearly considers it a down-market option, as you noted. There are fewer cores, and DVI output is limited to a single link (1920x1200).

My current upgrades (12 GB total RAM + 1 TB SSD + USB 3.0 card + quiet fans) have kept the PC usable, but I would probably upgrade quickly if there was a nice motherboard option between "It doesn't have enough fast USB ports" and "It costs twice as much." And IGP wasn't such a trade-off.

Have a look at the HP EliteDesk 800 G5 Mini. It is tiny (1 liter), can go up to 64GB RAM and i9-9900K running at full 95W, and supports dual M.2 SSDs. The fans do run noisily when you run it hard, but it can sustain heavy parallel compiles for hours with no throttling. The iGPU with Dual DisplayPort and the option of adding HDMI, supports dual 4Kp60. Depending on CPU, it has vPro so you get Serial over LAN and remote KVM using MeshCommander. If you configure to order with FreeDOS in the US (not sure about Canada), you can also save $150 of Microsoft tax.



By Stephen Kitt at 2020-08-27 05:58:59:

I tend to look for motherboards supporting “low-end” Xeons, which are equivalent to i7s/i9s for similar prices (trading unlocked multipliers for ECC support); they usually have all the features you’re looking for, and none of the unnecessary bells and whistles of high-end desktop motherboards. They often don’t even require using Xeons and/or ECC RAM; the current Intel chipset for this is the W480, and it works fine with many regular desktop CPUs.

The big disadvantage of these boards over mainstream motherboards is that they’re more expensive and harder to buy...

Written on 24 August 2020.
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